Editing Notes: So You’re an Underwriter, Part III — Dialogue

Photo by Helena Lopes on Unsplash

I left dialogue for last because, for me, it’s the aspect of writing I have the least trouble with. The initial spark for most of my scenes is usually a snippet of conversation; I’ve built entire novels from an idea that evolved from two characters talking about something strange. (I’ve been tempted, sometimes, to share the first scene I wrote for the earliest draft of What We Need to Survive–it looks almost nothing like the scene that made it into the book. I’m afraid if I go back to look at it now, five years later, I’ll cringe to hard and won’t be able to post it!)

So, in the first part I talked about narrative, and in the second, action.

Dialogue, while it may be easy for me to write naturally, may be trickier to add after the fact. How can you tell your writing needs more dialogue?

  • The primary source of information is internal monologue or other narrative. For some stories, this may be the right choice, but ideally a reader gets important information from all available sources, including dialogue. If everything comes from a single source–like a first-person narrator–then we only get one worldview, and other characters have no chance to speak for themselves. (Also, it leaves the reader vulnerable to unreliable narrators, which can be great if it’s on purpose, but awful if it’s not carefully constructed. In most other cases, multiple information sources are best.) Consider: would adding any dialogue to this scene give you a chance to incorporate more information the reader needs? Would any information already included be more or less reliable (depending on your story aims) coming from a different source?
  • Your action scenes are silent. Think about it. If two or more people are fighting, there are going to be taunts or insults hurled along with the fists and feet. If one person is chasing another, somebody’s probably yelling: the chaser, or bystanders on the street who are getting shoved out of the way. Even a character alone in a dire situation will probably vocalize something: cries for help if they’re in danger, swearing if they’re frustrated by something, talking to themselves to calm their nerves if they’re anxious. It’s not impossible, of course, but people rarely react to high-energy situations with silence. Consider: what would a natural reaction to this scene be for an Average Joe character, and what would they say? If that doesn’t feel genuine to your actual character, why and how would it be different? Would adding dialogue to show that reaction enhance the scene?
  • It was applicable for action, and it’s applicable for dialogue: have I gone too long without mentioning a character? Lengthy passages of description or world-building can be broken up by dialogue as easily as action. To return to my hiker-in-the-forest example, after a chunk of narrative about the forest itself, your hiker could say something out loud in reaction to an attention-grabbing element. If you’ve ever watched a video someone takes of a wild animal approaching them, you know they’re always talking, and not necessary to the camera. Hey, look at you, cute little fox or OH MY GOD THAT BEAR IS HUGE IS IT COMING THIS WAY. And if your hiker’s not alone, even better; intersperse dialogue with their companion throughout their hike. Consider: what elements of this scene would be better conveyed through dialogue than description? Should I describe the sunset or show my characters reacting to it? Would they talk to the fox or be silent, hoping it comes closer?

If this seems more vague than the other two entries in the series, well, you’re observant, because it is. It has to be. The trouble with dialogue, more so than narrative or action, is that it’s the most obvious spot to fall out of character; I’m more likely, as a reader, to notice when someone says something I don’t think they would say, than if they mention a description of something I don’t think they’d notice or take some small action they normally wouldn’t. Both of those things are possible, of course, and with strong characterization they’d also be problems–but in my reading, at least, out-of-character actions are usually deliberate mysteries set up by the author; out-of-character narrative just isn’t common enough for me to generalize; but out-of-character dialogue is all too easy to find. (Especially in television shows; with multiple writers on staff writing many different characters, slip-ups happen. I still remember some really OOC lines from Buffy the Vampire Slayer twenty years later.)

All of my advice here can only be general; I can’t tell you your deliberately silent-stoic character should be shouting from the rooftops when they have a crush on someone, because you know it’s out of character. But if your talkative, charismatic ladies’ man is sitting silently drinking in a crowded bar…well, shouldn’t he be talking? Flirting with someone? Chatting up the bartender? If he’s not, that tells us something about his mood, and if that’s your point, great! But if you just forgot to give him appropriate dialogue, if you didn’t let him be himself as he would in that setting, then it’s an oversight, and adding dialogue would solve it.

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